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Is Reading Taught in the Minneapolis Public Schools?
Subj:      [Mpls] Is Reading Taught? AAA, LM's SWJ column
Date:     12/6/2001 9:52:14 AM Central Standard Time

Topics: Is reading taught? Arts for Academic Achievement.  Lynnell
Mickelsen's latest SW Journal column.

In a message dated 12/5/2001 9:15:27 PM Central Standard Time,
[djbrauer] writes:

> It's probably time we changed the subject line on this thread, since
>  it's obviously ridiculous. I only left it on this time to point out the
>  hyperbole of the it's-always-midnight-in-the-schools crowd.

The idea that reading instruction doesn't ordinarily happen in the
Minneapolis Public Schools may sound ridiculous.  Reading is a fundamental
academic skill, a prerequisite for effective participation in classroom
activities that fill a large part of a child's day, even in the early
elementary grades.

However, it is self evident that 'effective' reading instruction doesn't
ordinarily happen in the Minneapolis Public Schools because so many students
do not learn to read well, and many do not learn to read at all, including
students who are continuously enrolled in the Minneapolis Public Schools from
Kindergarten to grade 3 and beyond.

However, I think it is also fair to say that reading instruction doesn't
ordinarily happen in the Minneapolis Public School at all because so many
school administrators, parents, and teachers say that effective reading
instruction can't be done at school.  If it doesn't happen at home, it often
doesn't happen at all.

The problem with delegating the responsibility for reading instruction to
parents is that most parents lack the expertise that may be needed, some
don't have the knack for teaching (are too impatient, etc), and many parents
have jobs and household tasks to attend to that renders it difficult or
impossible to home school their children (a parent who provides primary
reading instruction is basically a home schooler, whether their child is
enrolled in a school or not).

Of course there are exceptions to the rule.  Reading instruction is done in
some classrooms in the Minneapolis Public School system. I vaguely recall a
story in the Star-Tribune about a model teacher in the 2nd or 3rd grade who
brought most of her nonreaders up to grade level in reading by teaching
phonics.  This model teacher reportedly had some training and experience in
special education.  I'm sure that many other teachers make an effort to
provide effective reading instruction in the classroom, but as in many other
endeavors, it often takes more than the efforts of an isolated individual to

In my opinion, the 2 biggest obstacles to providing effective reading
instruction in the classroom are

1) an incoherent curriculum, specifically the look-say method.  In theory,
children should learn how to read with little or no instruction in much the
same way that children learn how to speak or to sign.  One isn't taught how
to speak.  One simply learns how to speak without instruction through
exposure to speech at a certain age.  If one does not learn the basics of
verbal communication by age 2 or 3, one's ability to learn how to speak at
all will be greatly reduced.

Whether the look-say / whole language method is a method of reading
instruction is debatable.  It is predicated upon the idea that learning how
to read is usually a matter of being exposed to reading: being read to by
one's parents, by reading and rereading picture books, and by "reading" words
that a child frequently encounters. Children will acquire and buildup their
sight vocabulary, and figure out a lot of the phonetic rules and acquire the
ability to sound out words in a more or less automatic fashion, in theory.  
However, in practice, many kids acquire only a limited sight vocabulary, and
rely heavily on their limited sight vocabulary and other contextual cues to
guess at the pronounciation and meaning of words that they don't recognize.  

Kids who develop a high degree of proficiency at sounding out words are able
to make a better educated guess at what an unfamiliar word is.  To develop
fluency at reading, children should be encouraged to guess how to pronounce
unfamiliar words, and to guess what an unfamiliar word means.  However, it is
likely that the guesses of a child who is proficient at sounding out words
will be far more accurate than the guesses of a child whose phonics skills
are poorly developed or nonexistent.  Guess which child is more likely to
become a proficient reader by grade 3?

2) Ability-grouping.  Many teachers can get around the latest English
language curriculum product purchased by the district, but it is far more
difficult to get around the district's recommendation that teachers

The ability-grouping model goes along with an approach to teaching that is
very difficult to modify without active support from the administration,
other teachers, and parents.  

The approach that goes along with the ability-grouping model generally
involves an emphasis on teacher-centered learning activities.  Instruction
for most students is informed less by systematic observations and an
individualized assessment / planning process than it is by preconceived
notions about what a child can and cannot do.

Some ideas about how to change teaching practices were raised in a
presentation to the Minneapolis Board of Education at its last public
meeting: Arts for Academic Achievement.  It should be possible to catch it on
cable prior to the next board meeting. I spoke at that board meeting about
the Arts for Academic Achievement presentation.  It was one of the rare
occasions where I had something nice to say about a school program.  I also
tape recorded most of the radio broadcast of the Arts for Academic
Achievement presentation.  I hope to eventually compose and send a short
e-mail message about it to the list.  

Regarding Lynnell Mickelsen's latest column in the SW Journal.  It is obvious
that the target audience consists of parents who, by and large share the
prejudices of the author, a parent whose children are thriving in the public
schools. The targeted audience is therefore likely to find her comments

However, what is published in the SW Journal plays a role in shaping public
opinion and the political agenda in Minneapolis.  That makes her opinions
about school related issues a matter of interest to the entire population of

-Doug Mann,  Kingfield

Doug Mann for School Board